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Zirpoli: Make it easier for Americans to vote

According to Brent Griffiths, writing for Politico.com, 37 states and the District of Columbia allow early voting for the 2016 elections. For some, early voting will start in their individual town or district, but not necessarily in their entire state. For other voters, their entire state will start casting ballots prior to our nation's official Election Day on Nov. 8.

In some states, early voting may depend on the voter asking for a mail ballot, "while others open physical polling places weeks or even months before the election," according to Griffiths.

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Griffiths reported that in the 2012 presidential election, "approximately 30 percent of the votes cast came via mail or early balloting." Historically, according to Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida who studies election trends, Democrats lead in in-person early voting and Republicans in mail-in ballots. The number of early voting in 2016 is expected to grow significantly from 2012.

Early voting in Maryland starts on Thursday, Oct. 27 this year, 12 days prior to Election Day. Voting centers are open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. every day of early voting. Carroll County's only early voting center is the Westminster Senior and Community Center, at 125 Stoner Ave. Early voting in Maryland ends the Thursday before Election Day. Thus, if you don't vote by Nov. 3, you'll need to vote in person on Nov. 8 when the polls are open from 7 in the morning until 8 in the evening. You must be in line by 8 p.m. to vote.

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I wish we can all follow the example of Colorado, where, starting in 2014, every voter in the state — all 3,125,300 of them — receives a ballot in the mail prior to elections. Voters can either return their ballots by mail or return their ballot in person starting two weeks prior to Election Day (for those who don't trust the mail). This is the first presidential election cycle where Colorado voters can mail in their ballots and many researchers are interested to know how this might influence voter turnout.

Like our neighbors in Virginia, many states allow absentee ballots as early as a month or two prior to Election Day. Each state has its own rules on the use of absentee ballots. Some are open to everyone and some are limited only to those who physically cannot make it to their polling center. These voters may need medical documentation.

In some states, such as Wisconsin, early in-person voting varies by town or municipality, instead of one statewide start date.

Minnesota, Vermont, South Dakota and Wyoming are the most generous with allowing citizens to start voting 45 days prior to Election Day. Indeed, voters in these four states have been voting since Sept. 23. In fact, localities in Vermont may start voting earlier than that if they wish, but must start by Sept. 23. Voters in Nebraska and Ohio may start voting 35 days prior to Election Day, followed by New York with 32 days. Twenty-one days prior to Election Day appears to be about the average start for states with early voting. However, states such as Florida start just 10 days prior to Election Day. Sadly, there are still a dozen states, such as Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi, where early voting is not an option unless you qualify for a state-approved absentee ballot, which must be evaluated on an individual basis.

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It will be interesting to see how long it takes for a state to start allowing online voting as another option to mailing ballots or voting in person. It will happen, I'm sure. But clearly there needs to be an easier way, like they do in Colorado, for all Americans to vote (and to register to vote). As Americans, our ability to vote should not depend on where we live.

According to Pew Research Center, there are 225 million eligible voters in 2016. The tradition of everyone trying to vote in person on one day are long gone, and appropriately so. We should be doing all we can in America to make it easier and more accommodating for people to practice one of our nation's most fundamental rights — the right to vote.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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